Tom Flynn – In Like Flynn

June 25, 2010

Tom Flynn is Executive Director of The Council for Secular Humanism, Editor of Free Inquiry magazine, Director of Inquiry Media Productions, and Director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum.

A journalist, novelist, entertainer, and freethought historian, Flynn is the author of numerous articles and editorials for Free Inquiry magazine. In addition to The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, his books include two black comedy science fiction novels, Nothing Sacred, its prequel Galactic Rapture, and The Trouble With Christmas, a secularist critique of the holiday. He has made hundreds of radio and TV appearances in his role as the curmudgeonly “anti-Claus.”

In this conversation with Robert Price, Tom explains how he transitioned from his conservative Catholic youth Secular Humanist he is today. He talks about the part Mormonism played in his transition to non-belief. Perhaps one of the most consistent secularists around today, Tom elaborates on the problems he has with rites of passage ceremonies and marriage. He talks about what he sees as problems with some secular charity programs and the parts of life he believes should be off-limits to a secular community. Finally, he and Price discuss radical Islam and how we should approach talking about it.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, June 25th, 2010. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Robert Price. Point of Inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reasons, science and secular values and public affairs. And that the grass roots. My guests today on Point of Inquiry is Tom Flynn editor of Free Inquiry magazine and executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism. He’s also the director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum and the author of books, including The Trouble with Christmas, Galactic Rapture and Nothing Sacred. And he’s the editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Tom, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Hey, Bob, great to be with you today. 

Tell us about your religious upbringing and how you made your way out of it. And then the secular humanism. 

Well, I started out a fairly conservative Roman Catholic. My childhood and my early teen years were before the Second Vatican Council. And I was I was actually pretty much at home in the rather authoritarian church. It all made sense to me that, you know, God and God ran the world and he had ordained that things would be this way. And so we should believe the teachings and obey the priests and what have you. And my my spiritual crisis, if you will, really kind of began when I was 13 or 14 years old. They reforms from the Second Vatican Council were just starting to percolate into the church. When I was growing up, the Sunday mass consisted of the congregation pretty much sitting there watching the priests back while he performed the sacrifice of the mass. And all of a sudden everything had been turned around. And the priest was facing the congregation and he was speaking English. And I mean, what was the point of that? We all knew Jesus spoke Latin. So I began to wonder, wow, how can they change these things if these practices are of God? How can mere people go around changing them? So I started looking into the history of the church, the history of the religion, and it was kind of like peeling back an onion over a period of several years. First, I came to the conclusion that Catholicism was not necessarily truer than any of the other Christian sects, and then that Christianity was not necessarily truer than any of the other world religions. And ultimately, that belief in any kind of supernatural being was not necessarily truer than Athie ism. In fact, it was the other way around. But it was a it was a long and fairly solitary process. I was probably like 22 years old at the end of it. And I literally woke up one morning and for the first time felt comfortable with being an atheist. I went down to the public library, looked up Athie ism in the card catalog, started reading a couple of books and almost instantly realized, Oh, holy cow, if I’d known to look at these books, I could’ve shaved four years off this process. 

Well, you’re also something of an expert on Mormonism. Are the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints whence cometh your interest in the religion of the golden plates? 

I was fascinated with Mormonism because it’s, you know, America’s home grown religion. And at the time that I was really starting to delve into the origins of Christianity and starting to wrestle with this question of, oh, well, could the whole Christian narrative have been untrue? You know, if if Jesus never came back from the dead and what have you. Could we still have these historical characters who did these missionary projects and allowed themselves to be murdered by the Romans and what have you? Could that possibly have unfolded? And here was the Mormon religion, which had taken root in our own country in, you know, starting in 1830. Everything was in English. The the records by world historical standards were both accessible and pretty good quality. And so it was possible using that to look at the birth of what would ultimately become a world religion. And of course, the fascinating thing is with Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, you’re dealing with someone who had a well-established history. As for lack of any nicer way to put it, a con man who appears to have launched the faith as a conscious get rich quick project. I think as the years passed, he began to believe in him. Self to his detriment, but said that that was the basis of my fascination with Mormonism, you know, here’s here’s a church that too, you know, any secular scholars view really did begin in falsehood. Its doctrines were made up. We know that the alleged miraculous events did not happen. And yet the church came together anyway. And, of course, for me, the fascinating thing was if the Mormon religion could start from such shabby circumstances and become a powerful church, well, then Christianity might have begun the same way. Least there’s at least we have the example of the Mormon religion to show that a powerful faith doesn’t have to start out in the truth. 

That is very striking. It’s obvious you’re not saying, well, that just shows Christianity is a fraud to your disarming the bogus argument that says, oh, no, such a thing couldn’t have happened. 

Well, we’ve got to wait and see if it did happen by looking at the evidence. But it could have happened. And as happened. 

Tom, everything you’ve said reinforces my conviction that you are the most consistent secularist I know. And I see you get out more, Bob. 

That’s all I had. No, no, I’m telling you. 

I mean, everybody I’ve been up there to the center when we’re talking about secularism and sadly, someone has recently passed on. And so we’re going to go out and plant a tree and have a memorial service. So what I thought. I mean, too bad. So and so’s gone. We’ll miss some. But as a memorial ceremony with a resurrection image, what this is this is secularism. And you’ve always seemed to understand that with this uncaring instinct. And I believe, if I’m not mistaken, you also think humanists, secularists ought to skip any sort of rites of passage because they program a person according to the dictates of society and just wipe out individualism, even including marriage. Is that right? 

Yes. Yes. I basically view humanism as something intensely individualistic, intensely emancipatory and very much rooted in enlightenment traditions that aim to liberate the individual from undue control by social convention, by political force. 

You know, you think about it. You look at the program of the Enlightenment over the last 400 years. And it’s basically been an effort to emancipate the individual from the power of kings, from the power of a pervasive ecclesiastical hierarchy, from the power of the gossips in the small town square, what have you. And I look on most rites of passage as being designed more or less explicitly to proclaim or even celebrate the individual’s dependance, be it on the community or the state or the supernatural order. And well, let’s let’s look at matrimony, for example. OK. I know two people love each other and want to commit to each other. Why does that require permission or endorsement from the state, from the society? You know, if if the two individuals want to commit to each other and they know they’ve done it and they want to tell their friends about it, isn’t that enough? Do you need a clergy person there? Do you need this specific mix of family members going through this specific ritual in order to make it real? And if you do, then who owns that relationship? Does it belong to the two people who are in it or does it belong to society? And a lot of conservatives will be very explicit and say, no, no, it belongs to society. You know, we should recognize we should even celebrate that the individual is sublimated in these situations. And I guess I’m a little too wedded to the emancipatory agenda to feel altogether comfortable with that. 

One place that really comes into focus, no matter where you’re at, is the controversy over gay marriage. If society by voting can say no, it’s not legitimate for you to be married. 

Who’s got the copyright on this thing? Because they seem to think somebody does. 

And that’s just to me, a perfect example of that. 

That implication of the whole thing, the changing of marriage, customs and so on, indicates it’s it’s a fiction. It may be a useful one in many ways. All human conventions are. 

But then this is one of the things I love about the book Harvey Cox wrote 40 years plus ago, The Secular City. Where he said, strangely enough, the rational principle begins to permeate the West implicitly through certain seeds in the biblical tradition where you’ve got the demythologizing of nature. There’s still a God, but he isn’t nature. And Unitarians, for example, of following the Enlightenment heritage, eventually said, you know, there’s there’s no supernatural either. And the interesting thing was that the Bible already speaks of human institutions as a kind of fall and God. And so the outcome of that. I mean, that’s just the kind of recognition that makes it possible to be liberated from these these collectivities and their decrees. And yet again, I think you’re one of the few that that really sees that no matter what the roots of it are. 

Yeah, well, another another kind of historical irony is if you want to look back and ask, where does this enlightenment individualistic strain first really begin to have an effect on Western history? We really have to go back to the Protestant Reformation. It was a profoundly, radically Enlightenment concept that the individual should confront scripture directly, that people should read the Bible for themselves in their own language. It was a profoundly emancipatory Enlightenment concept that individuals should confront God directly, that you didn’t have to have the priest or the church as an intermediary, that each man and his soul were encountering the divine on their own. This vast example of disintermediation, of sweeping away these these middleman entities that claimed huge social power because they were the gateway to God and people like Luther and Calvin said no individual can do these things. UNmediated, can experience scripture, can relate to God directly. You don’t need all this stuff in between. Now, of course, they they didn’t do this in in a pure way. You know, Martin Luther still built a church organization here. But the whole idea of descender mediating saying we can we can at least to some degree, take away all of this infrastructure between the person and the divine is really the first big manifestation of this enlightenment, individualism in history. Now, of course, as they as that trend would move forward, the whole idea of the divine would come to to come under question. 

But, you know, as secular and anticlerical as I am, I have to admit a lot of what I think is coolest about humanism traces back to the Protestant Reformation. No two ways about it. 

You like demand says there’s a there’s the dialectic of blindness and insight. If you saw too much at a time, it would be too dazzling. And you have to see only so far and leave the next step for somebody else to take. And that’s where it lights up. That’s why I still say secularism is the future. Probably a lot of probably an uneven path with setbacks and steps backwards. But with encroaching science and multi culturalism and knowing people of other religions pluralism, eventually it just has to work itself out that way. 

I think so. And I think we you know, we secularists are in a unique position to be comfortable with the tentative, sometimes accidental, one step forward, two steps back, quality of it, because we know there is nothing but human beings making all of this happen. 

And human human beings are fallible. In one sense, it’s a much more realistic platform from which to contemplate social change than if you believe we’re all here doing God’s will. Well, wow. If we’re all here doing God’s will. Why isn’t history a lot neater? Nonreligious people don’t have to deal with that quandary because they never had the assumption of perfection to begin with. 

That’s so that’s well put. That’s just the opposite for the reason you mention of the B and the Islamic Bonnett or should I say Turbin, because their doctrine is a law should have made them win all these holy wars throughout history against Israel, India, et cetera, and they keep getting their butts kicked. This is maddening. And so you see the result, whereas without that absurdly inflated expectation, you can bide your time. 

And like the you know, the the water eroding the rock, eventually the right thing will happen. 

What is thing, a consistency, inconsistency with the secularism and humanism. Do you think that humanism should be organized in to church like local communities or should have specifically tagged humanist charities? 

Well, let me let me begin with a little bit of semantics there. 

ISM without a modifier is a very, very big term, and it includes some people who explicitly understand themselves and call themselves religious humanists. And for these folks in, you know, a fondness for the trappings of denominational life is very authentic for them. Now, this is one of the reasons why I prefer the term secular humanist and the humanism that I practice is explicitly non-religious. And as in my view, if you’re a secular humanist, you probably shouldn’t be hankering to replicate the social patterns of your neighborhood church. In fact, for a lot of people who view their humanism as emancipatory in the way I do, getting out from under the, you know, the casual oppressiveness of that little congregation where everybody knows everybody’s business and the preachers only too happy to tell you how to live your life is one of the benefits of being a humanist. So, yeah, I, I see secular humanism and, you know, allowing for the fact that there are other kinds of human associate differently. I think secular humanist should be profoundly suspicious of attempts to replicate the congregational community. You know, there are there other ways for people to get together and satisfy their needs. And again, one of the things that drives that, we come back to that idea of disintermediation. You look at the religious community, whether it’s, you know, your local Episcopal church or some megachurch with, you know, 5000 people in a Starbucks in the lobby. 

The ruling pattern in all of these sorts of institutions is that they seek to shape a lot of aspects of a person’s life. If you’re a member of a congregation in good standing, you aren’t just supposed to believe the doctrines that your particular church teaches about God or the afterlife. You’re supposed to attend the services. But even more than that, you’re supposed to let the congregation into large parts of the rest of your life. And you look at these big megachurches, they have martial arts classes and crafts classes. 

There’s a strong expectation that if you needed insurance agent or a lawyer or a plumber, you’re going to search first for that within the congregation. You know, so the congregation is really kind of making its stamp on all parts of your life, going way beyond the purview of what you think about God. To me, as a secular humanist, one of the things I love about being a secular humanist is I can be emancipated from that to look at it in a funny way, if I want an insurance agent or I want a plumber, hey, I can go on Craigslist, I can crack open the Yellow Pages. I as an individual, you know, in much the same way that Martin Luther said people could read the Bible. I as an individual can march right out there into the larger society and find my own plumber. I can go see a psychologist. I don’t need to get pastoral counseling from my pastor. You know, my kids can go look for mates anywhere in society, not just people we know from church and so on. 

And one of the aspects of that is there’s a strong historical connection between the church congregation and charity. And of course, this goes back to the roots of Christianity. Jesus praised the widow who gave her last money in the world to the synagogue. And so they’re part of this. I suppose we could call it cultural imperialism, part of this reaching of the congregational community into other parts of the. Person’s life, very much as this identification between the church, the life stance community, if you will, and charitable outreach. Now, what we’ve seen over the last few years is there’s been a rather sudden explosion of, you might say, denominational, sectarian, secular charities. 

The Center for Inquiry has its share program. Richard Dawkins Foundation has announced something called Nonbeliever’s Giving Aid. There’s something called the Foundation Beyond Belief. Basically, all of these do is they encourage seculars to come together as seculars and give money. That’s then passed on to other non-religious charities that actually do the work. Now, the work is very worthwhile. The Center for Inquiry’s own share project raised over one hundred thousand dollars, which we transferred to Doctors Without Borders for relief of the earthquake in Haiti. 

It’s all wonderful work, on the other hand. We all have checkbook’s. Most of us have computers. There’s nothing to stop any of us as individuals from writing a check to Doctors Without Borders or any other recipient. So I ask, do we really need intermediaries tied to our life stance community to help us funnel our charitable giving? Do we need that done for us anymore in the way that somebody who grew up in a conventional congregation 100 years ago or is in a megachurch congregation today thinks they need that? I don’t think so. And so for that reason, I’m. This is my personal take. But it’s based on my you know, my feelings about the importance of enlightenment, individualism within the human. Is that imperative? I don’t think sectarian charities are something secular people ought to be involved with. I think there’s something non secular about that. And so I’m a I’m a dissenter on that score because there are certainly a lot of people in the movement who think that, you know, outreaches like share and foundation beyond belief are doing wonderful, wonderful work. I’m a little bit uncomfortable with it. 

What would they say that they’re doing that at least partly to to air of a good name of secular humanism, where if somebody hears what those those atheists as humanists are given to this, maybe they’re not the Satanists. I thought they were. 

Well, we often hear, you know, this this question that’s actually an accusation. You know, where the atheist hospitals where are the atheists soup kitchens? Well, there’s two ways you can approach that to a question. One. One way is you can kind of dissemble and say, oh, well, wait. We have we have our secular charities. Look, our share got this money together for Haiti. That’s really cool. The other way to answer that question, where are the atheist hospitals is now this is a really radical thought. The other way to answer that question is to answer it. 

Explain why there aren’t atheist hospitals, atheist soup kitchens, what have you. That secular humanist are secular. And so we don’t recognize the propriety of using a shared life stance as the filter by which to cobble together our support for charity in Ohio, where we’re all individuals, if we want to, you know, give for the relief of the poor, we’re all capable of doing that. And we can just do that as people. 

If somebody says, where’s the atheist hospital? Oh, it’s the one down the street. There’s no special I’m just a member of the public. Yeah, yeah. 

That’s that’s the point where we’re post denominational, if you will, as secular humanists for us. When we get together as secular humanist, it’s to discuss the things specific to our life stance and talk about our our views on religion and our experiences as members of a sometimes oppressed minority. That’s not where we go to give money to charity or to hire a plumber or to look for mates for our kids. We’re more secular than that. For all those other things, we go straight out into society as a whole, and that’s the way it should be. That’s what it means to be emancipated. 

Yeah, it’s sickening to see me any way to see things like the Christian Yellow Pages. And it would be equally sickening to see if a humanist. Yeah. Love it. Not. No, no. We’re not trying to bill ourselves some sort of a super race here, a part of the same community and not lifting up more walls than are already there. 

Yeah. Yeah. And it’s you know, you look at these things like the Christian Yellow Pages and. Well. Are they setting themselves out as a superior group or are they voluntarily walling themselves into a ghetto? It’s hard to tell. 

Now both, I suspect. Well, one last question, what do you have? It’s probably too big. What steps do you think humanism should take against what the government says doesn’t exist, militant radical Islam? 

Well, I think one of the first things we should do is, is recognize that it does exist and that now that this is an interesting area, because for all that, humanism is often identified with the political left when it comes to this whole question of radical Islam, we tend to find ourselves having strange bedfellows on the right. 

That an awful lot of times it’s nobody but us humanists and some neoconservatives up there on the ramparts saying, hey, wait, there is such a thing as radical Islam. The Islam as they understand it is not a religion of peace. It’s a danger to our society and yet needs to be called out on. And I feel very strongly about that in that I’m in the I’m very much in the same tradition as it’s been. War goes one of our research fellows, the author of Why I Am Not a Muslim and the editor of a long series of scholarly anthologies on The Roots of Islam. But Islam is a is a fascinating and very rich and very contradictory faith. You know, as people often point out, Islam has never gone through anything analogous to the Christian Reformation and say what you will about the Reformation that at least taught most Christian churches a certain level of humility, if you will, an idea that even within their own tradition, there really were multiple ways to see the same questions. And I think one of the one of the fruits of the fact that Islam has not gone through an experience like that is that the totalitarian the the violent aspects of the faith, which are which are in every faith, every great monotheistic faith is at its roots absolutist dick. We’re right, everybody else’s wrong. But the asocial sides of that, the violent sides of that, I think legitimately are a little bit closer to the surface in Islam because there hasn’t been this reformation experience. So, yes, they’re there very much is such a thing as radical Islam. I think we need to be explicit about that. I think we need to not be shy about calling it out. And we need to be on the barricades fighting against this notion that the way to demonstrate plurality insensitivity in society is never to talk about any sort of religious question. You know, there’s this movement in the United Nations now that’s been explicitly recognized time after time and the various human and Human Rights Council and its successors and is getting closer and closer to being recognized by the entire General Assembly, which is that there should not be any speech critical of religion, that defamation of religion is something that just should never be engaged in. And yet religion is a profoundly important human endeavor. Whether you think it’s true or false, whether you think a particular human religion is true or false, it affects the way people live their lives. It affects the way political and historical stories unfold. You can’t not talk about it. And if a religion if a particular religious doctrine happens to be ridiculous or oppressive of certain minority groups or pernicious. 

It needs to be within the repertoire of acceptable social discourse to say that religion cannot be held up as immune from responsible criticism. 

Yeah, Hamas wants believes in the literal truth of the protocols of the elders of Zion and wants to eliminate Jews. But that’s all right because they’re a religious group now. 

No, I’m afraid not, that there’s a line that has to be exact. No, no. And you have to I mean, it has to be possible to call them out on that. 

And that’s that’s something that at Council for Secular Humanism and at the Center for Inquiry, we have a program ongoing called the The Campaign for Free Expression. And its motto is, ideas don’t have rights. People do. 

Wow. Great. And that that really gets down to the core of it. There are an awful lot of activists, particularly within the Islamic community, who are trying to claim the equivalent of individual rights for their ideas. No, people have rights, including the right to espouse virtually any belief, silly or profound, that they like. And all the people around them have the right to speak critically of that idea. Ideas don’t have rights. People do. And I think more and more of us need to keep that front and center in the social discourse. 

That’s an excellent maxim that really sums a lot of very clearly, as you do on all these questions are your great guest. And I really appreciate your being with us today, Tom, on point of inquiry. 

It’s been great fun, Bob. Thank you. 

This is Ron Lindsay president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. I’m delighted to announce that we are once again sponsoring Camp Inquiry, a unique summer camp for young skeptics from ages seven to 16. Camp Inquiry encourages children to think for themselves free from the constraints of religious dogma and the myths of pseudoscience. I should let Dr. Anji McQuaig, director of the camp, tell you more about it. 

We are proud to announce this year’s camp inquiry theme. Young Minds, Big Questions. Who am I and why am I here? What can I know and what am I to do? Once the domain of theological and speculative thought, these questions are now increasingly being addressed by the sciences and by kids. Young minds. Big questions serve as the Center for Inquiry Central Mission of elucidating the philosophical, moral and cultural implications of the scientific outlook. Cameras will engage in Hands-On philosophy this summer, including games, team activities, dialog, outdoor exploration and arts projects to explore where we fit in the cosmic narrative offered by the natural sciences. Young Minds. Big Questions also serves as the title of a short feature documentary that campers will produce as the capstone of their summer experience and parents. You’re invited to join us for dinner with Dale McGowan, coauthor of Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers, in a very special evening with the amazing James Randi, the world’s leading investigator and demystify of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. Camp inquiry will be held at Camp Seven Hills and Hall in New York between July 18th and 24th. For more information or to register, please visit Camp Inquiry dot org. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed for us by Emmy Award winner Michael Whalen. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Robert Price. 

Robert M. Price

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1954, Robert Price moved to New Jersey in 1965. At Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary he took an MTS degree in New Testament (1978), then, at Drew University, a PhD in Systematic Theology (1981) and a second PhD in New Testament (1993). He has served as Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College, North Carolina, pastor of First Baptist Church, Montclair, NJ, and Director of the Metro NY Center for Inquiry. He founded and edited the Journal of Higher Criticism and has authored scores of articles on the Bible and religion. His books include Beyond Born AgainThe Widow Traditions in Luke-ActsDeconstructing JesusThe Incredible Shrinking Son of ManThe Da Vinci FraudThe Reason-Driven LifeThe Pre-Nicene New TestamentJesus Is Dead, and The Paperback Apocalypse. Price is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. He served as Professor of Theology and Scriptural Studies at Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary and Professor of Biblical Criticism for the Center for Inquiry Institute in Amherst, NY. He and his wife Carol and daughters Victoria and Veronica live in Selma, NC.